Kōrero: Rugby union

Whārangi 10. The changing game

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Amateurism was a founding principle of rugby that distinguished it from association football (soccer). Rugby was not alone in the belief that sport should be played for enjoyment rather than monetary gain, but it clung longest to the principle. There was also a class element to amateurism. Southern English administrators, mostly educated at public schools and at Oxford or Cambridge, wanted to keep their game ‘pure’.

A pioneer of the New Zealand game, Tom Ellison, argued that the amateur laws were never intended to apply to tours. The 1905–6 New Zealand team was criticised by the Scottish and Irish unions for paying its players expenses of three shillings a day. They argued this amounted to professionalism, but the English union ruled otherwise. As a consequence, Scotland briefly broke off relations with England and, in 1924, refused to allow the All Blacks to play in Scotland.

Challenge of league

A year after the return of the All Blacks in 1906, the game faced its first crisis. It was reported in April 1907 that a New Zealand group was negotiating with clubs in the Northern Union – which had broken away from rugby union in 1895 to form rugby league – for a tour by ‘the All Blacks’. The idea came from a Wellington rugby player, Albert Baskerville. The New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU), guarding the amateur principle, took various actions against the players, but the first league team left New Zealand in August 1907 for matches in Sydney and Britain. It included nine All Blacks. A tour of New Zealand in 1908 by an Anglo-Welsh team (Scotland and Ireland refused to join) was intended to prop up the amateur game, and the NZRFU also began selecting official Māori teams in 1910, in part to offer Māori players an alternative to rugby league.

High price to pay

In 1981 Graham Mourie captained the All Blacks on a tour to Romania and France. At that time players were unpaid, and in order to tour, Mourie had to hire a manager for his Taranaki farm; his chief farm labourer was his wife. When the All Blacks returned from France, Mourie calculated the cost: ‘Wages - $1200 (it would have been more but [wife] Claudia sacked the manager for being incompetent). Cost of incompetence: another $1200. A relatively cheap tour.’ In 2022 terms, $2,400 was worth $12,000.

Some NZRFU administrations were accused of turning a blind eye to breaches of amateurism, but others were just as zealous as the English. A dominant All Black of the 1980s, Andy Haden, appeared before the NZRFU to answer charges of professionalism. He was cleared. Players who switched to league were instantly banned and even an All Blacks captain, Graham Mourie, was declared a professional for writing a book.


Rugby union abandoned amateurism in 1995, exactly a century after the Lancashire and Yorkshire clubs had formed the Northern Union. Even then, the International Rugby Board (IRB) declared the game ‘open’ only after three national unions, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, began paying their leading players. Anecdotally, players in some countries had been paid ‘under the table’ for years.

The professionalisation of rugby enabled the creation of the Tri-Nations and Super 12 competitions. (By 2016 the Tri-Nations had become four and Super Rugby had swollen to 18 franchises based in five countries spanning seven time zones.) On the basis of large payments for television rights to games, players in the All Blacks and Super teams were contracted for considerable sums. The best players could earn up to $1 million a year, including private sponsorship. Provincial players were also paid. Stadiums became more exclusive. Open ‘terraces’ with standing room only were replaced by all-seated stadiums with corporate boxes, members’ lounges and video screens.

New rules and styles

Rugby league was seen as a more open, free-flowing game, which led the unions in New Zealand and New South Wales to lobby for law changes that would make rugby as attractive. One suggestion was that a kick in open play from outside the 25-yard line which went into touch on the full should result in a throw-in to the opposing team opposite the point where the kick had been made. New Zealand and Australia promoted this before the First World War, and even played it as a local rule in defiance of the English, until it was finally adopted by the IRB in 1969. The two countries also argued for the replacement of injured players, a change the IRB agreed to in 1968. Substitutions for tactical reasons have been permitted since 1996.

New Zealand was forced to drop its wing forward position and scrum formation of two-three-two (replaced by the orthodox three-four-one) in 1931, when it was told that if it wanted to continue to play international rugby, it would have to comply with international rules.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Ron Palenski, 'Rugby union - The changing game', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/rugby-union/page-10 (accessed 13 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Ron Palenski, i tāngia i te 5 Sep 2013, updated 1 Sep 2016